Building the Soviets

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The Soviet state, as conceived by Lenin and his closest comrades, was to be a state like no other, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would defend the workers’ and peasants’ republic and preside over the elimination of classes and, ultimately, of itself. But if, in Lenin’s words, soviet power was the “organizational form of the dictatorship,” what was the organizational form assumed by the soviets?

An early indication of what was envisioned is contained in a Sovnarkom decree of December 24, 1917 which defined them as “organs of government” devoted to “the tasks of administration and service in all departments of local life.” Instructions issued by the Commissariat of Internal Affairs on January 9, 1918 elaborated on the tasks to be undertaken by the soviets. Finally, the Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, which was adopted by the Third All-Russian Congress of Soviets in July 1918, formally established the hierarchy of soviets beginning at the top with the All-Russian Congress, the Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) and Sovnarkom, and proceeding down to regional, provincial, county and rural soviet levels. This arrangement served as the model for the soviet republics of Ukraine and Belorussia upon their establishment in 1919 and others subsequently incorporated within the Union.

But its tidiness on paper obscures a good deal of chaos, strong-arming, and improvisation on the ground. Even after the expulsion of Mensheviks and SRs from the VTsIK in July 1918, the delineation of functions between that body and Sovnarkom was quite blurred. This also was the case with respect to the commissariats, particularly at the provincial level where several typically claimed priority over the distribution of food and housing, the administration of industry, transport allocation, and educational policy. As far as elections to the soviets were concerned, many at the provincial and lower levels were annulled in 1918 after they had produced Menshevik and SR majorities. One trend that proved inexorable and irreversible was the shift in administration from the general meeting of soviet deputies to smaller executive committees (ispolkomy). This was in keeping with Lenin’s tirade in “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” (April 1918) against “petty-bourgeois disorganization,” if not his injunction to “weed out bureaucracy.”

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